Turtle in a bucket

By Dr. Nick Hill

Dr. Nick Hill is a former Project Seahorse researcher and currently a project manager in the Marine and Freshwater Conservation Team at the Zoological Society of London. In this guest post, he talks about the conservation challenges facing the fishing communities of Danajon Bank, Philippines.

There's a beautiful white beach here, somewhere. Discarded plastic bottles, biscuit wrappers, Styrofoam and fishing nets are piled above head height in places.  You can smell this tiny island before you can see it.  I tread carefully through the minefield left by over 2,000 people that have neither a bin collection nor a sewerage system.  The occasional coconut palm and gnarly mangrove tree jut through, memoirs of a former paradise.

I consider taking a swim to escape the carnage. But the idea evaporates with one glance at the crystal clear water – devoid of life except for a thick green carpet of sludge on the seafloor.  Can you get typhoid from seawater?  Not a risk I'm willing to take.

As the setting sun casts a beautiful pink glow overhead, some Filipino fishers prepare for a night on the water.  There's normally excited anticipation before a fishing trip.  But not in this part of the Philippines.  There's some general chatter, the hissing of kerosene pressure lamps and the occasional whoosh as they're lit.  

Water sloshes around the legs of fishers as they wade out to their narrow outrigger canoes and fix the lamps in place over the bow.  Then the first of the modified pump engines that will power them to their fishing grounds shatters the relative tranquillity of the evening.  As they disappear into the distance and darkness descends, a generator splutters to life behind me and the street karaoke begins.

Iunderstand the fishers' lack of enthusiasm.  I joined one of them last night.  It's hard work, swimming all night, towing your boat with only a faint circle of light cast by the lamp to first spot and then spear your quarry.  Without a wetsuit, it doesn't take long before the tropical waters feel chilly, while invisible jellyfish leave their marks on your skin.

In the morning the returning fishers have barely enough catch to fill half a small bucket.  A lucky fisher proudly shows me his haul.  A pufferfish, still fully inflated, is his largest prize.  He grins as he tells me that many parts of this fish will kill you if eaten. But with so few fish left the fishers increasingly take the risk.  I watch as he deftly skins it and removes the poisonous internal organs, hoping he hasn't missed any.  

His most valuable catch is less obvious.  A pair of seahorses barely four inches long, still snapping their heads upward – the limited movement their stiff bodies allow.  The fisher proudly holds them up.  "China – expensive," he explains.  Behind him, the day-shift fishers busily prepare boats and long nets.

It's little wonder that many fishers are looking for new sources of income.  Seaweed farming is becoming increasingly common — where once there were fish, people now exploit the empty space to grow algae that feeds our insatiable demand for gels and cosmetics.  I wonder whether this shift in focus will allow the fish to recover.  

"It's because of the illegal fishers who use dynamite, cyanide and trawling," my guide informs me.  "If we can stop the illegal fishers then the fish will return."  And how will that happen?  "The government needs to increase enforcement," he explains.

By the afternoon I'm back on the mainland and being led along a rickety narrow walkway made of bamboo.  I reach a makeshift hut built over the sea.  Five or six gruff men sit in the shade, their boats tied up nearby.  

"These are my fish wardens," explains the Coastal Resource Manager.  "We have this hut as a look-out, so we can catch the illegal fishers."  There seems to be an awfully large area of sea and many islands out there.  Can they really spot illegal fishing from here?

In the corner, a big blue bucket catches my attention.  "Turtle," explains the manager.  

"The fishers caught it and brought it to us."  A large green turtle lies very still, just submerged, unable to turn around in its blue confines.  "We feed it fish that we catch, and we'll release it when we have money for fuel to take it to the deep sea, past the islands.  The fishers don't like it because it can eat their seaweed."  The turtle raises its head to breathe.

I'm surprised to see this turtle.  But why should I be?  Probably because it's alive.  Most of the animals I've seen here are destined for the pot.  But it also makes me think of what this place might once have been like.  When this sea was teaming with life, fishers could fill their buckets, turtles were numerous, and the island beaches were a tropical paradise.  This turtle in a bucket — a fragile vestige of better times.

Re-posted with permission from the Marine Reserves Coalition.